Athletic Alchemy 

Between roadshows and Rodman, there’s the Harlem Globetrotters

I’ve seen the Harlem Globetrotters once, which seems to be the number of times most people I talk to have seen them. This is not because you would never want to see them again, it’s that they keep moving. Whether they really do trot about the globe, I don’t know. They do so more now, I imagine, than when I saw them in the early ’60s. Or maybe they actually cross fewer borders, as their particular blend of humor, skill and exoticism becomes either a) increasingly quaint, as pure entertainment, and/or b) increasingly problematic, as cultural show.

This is just my own take on entertainment and culture and globetrotters of any sort; I don’t know what the general wisdom on the Harlem Globetrotters might be and this week I will not refer to the World Wide Web, having just come off a conversation in which the legitimacy of anything on the Web was brought into question. For example, there are web sites on Martin Luther King that start out very learned and documented and overtly informative, loaded with citations—the straight facts and nothing but. Only well into the site do these facts start becoming skewed so that you realize—and then only if you are older than the middle school population the site seeks to snag—that it was designed and “researched” by some close cousin of the KKK.

So if the veracity of anything on the Web can only be ascertained in terms of the veracity of what’s in your head, one argument goes, shouldn’t you stick to the latter? I don’t know. I will admit, it is disconcerting to see how my own children turn to the Internet with total faith as a research tool (and under my own encouragement, because its expediency over a trip to a library is sometimes welcome). But so what, really? I mean—so what is the actual difference between turning to the Internet with total faith and turning to books in the library with total faith? You shouldn’t turn to anything with total faith. You should learn 13 ways of looking at Huck Finn. Because Huck Finn is always changing. So you must read Finn in flux. Which brings us back to the Globetrotters, who are always on the move.

I actually am going to see the Harlem Globetrotters again, and therefore twice, in that I promised my younger son I would take him, whether or not he wins the locally sponsored reading contest in which the top reader gets two free tickets to the event. I believe that the Globetrotters are themselves co-sponsors of this contest, and this seems appropriate, for, as I’m trying to point out, the Harlem Globetrotters and reading go hand in hand. I wonder what my own reading of them will be this week, roughly 35 years since l saw them last?

The governing aspect of my first time around was the fact that all the players were black. Also that they were extremely tall, but mainly that they were black. This, in northern Montana, was indeed exotic. We went to the game in part, I have to tell you, to look at the players’ blackness. The experience of watching Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay, as we first knew him) proclaim on television his greatness and his prettiness, without a shred of decorum, was our other dominating exposure to blackness, and it was the current subject of some shocked discussion. Well, “discussion,” might be putting too fine a term to it.

Then there was Martin Luther King, again only on television in the experience of most northern Montanans who nevertheless knew—couldn’t help but know—that there was a stirring in the land. If Muhammad Ali seemed the apotheosis of “in your face” blackness, Martin Luther King was the respectable interpreter for whites of what the hell was going on. That’s how it seemed. And that’s the context in which the Harlem Globetrotters did their crazy hoop tricks at the local gym and flashed their ambassadors’ smiles.

Their antics, as I remember them, went nowhere near any dangerous edge. As entertainment, they were closer to the Temptations than to James Brown. I’m curious about how they now will seem. A designation of “all-black” surely means that race figures in, but this is nothing straightforward. The Harlem Globetrotters I will see this week will choose a race construct for themselves, just as they formerly have done, but what will it be? Maybe they’ll lampoon their former selves. Maybe they’ll lampoon Dennis Rodman’s flashy lampooning of pro basketball, making sports the primary context for their show. Maybe it always was the primary context for at least some of the Globetrotters and at least some of their audience. It’s a question of intention and reception, more than actual moves, just as the nature of information on the Internet is a question of ownership and consumption, over actual facts.

One thing I am fairly sure of is that my son and his buddies will be going to see basketball players, not black men. But then they will see both. They will be hoping to see skilled and tricky ball players—athletic alchemists—who can do amazing things in the twinkling of an eye. And I think they will. The Harlem Globetrotters play the Adams Event Center on Thursday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets $10-$20. Call 1-888-MONTANA.

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